Hitler at 50: Color Photos From a Despot’s Garish Birthday Bash

The Nazi party was formed before a fascist party, and in the April 1970 issue of LIFE magazine, the editor introduced readers to a photographer named Hugo Jaeger, pointing out that his work was remarkable. So, we usually do not give so much space to admire the work of men that we little admire.

Hitler allegedly proclaimed, upon witnessing the type of photography Jaeger was engaged in, that the future is in the hands of color photography. It turned out that Jaeger’s photographs were so perfectly aligned with the Führer’s vision of what a Thousand Year Reich might appear and feel like, that he gained unparalleled access to the highest ranks of the Third Reich. He accompanied and documented Adolf Hitler and his Nazi associates at grand rallies, military parades, and often during more serene, private moments. In that particular edition, LIFE magazine featured a series of astonishing color photographs captured by Jaeger during the late 1930s and 1940s.

The story of how LIFE came to own Jaeger’s collection of roughly 2,000 color photographs–a vast archive comprising an insider’s portrait of the Reich–is an extraordinary and little-known tale of intrigue from the post-war years.

Jaeger had been enduring a nightmare for years, knowing that if all the personal connections and pictures connecting him to Hitler were discovered by Americans conquering Germany at the end of the war, he would be arrested or worse. In 1945, as Allied troops were making their final push across Germany, Jaeger found himself face to face with a dozen and a half American soldiers in a small town west of Munich. According to Jaeger’s own account, this began the aspect of the espionage-thriller tale, with the sale, preservation, and creation of his own photos.

Jaeger left the house where he was staying, but what happened next was truly astonishing. During a search of the house in spring 1945, the Americans found a leather satchel hidden in the personal belongings of the photographer, containing thousands of color slides belonging to the Führer.

The soldiers sat down for a session of the put-and-take game, sharing a bottle of brandy while they played.

After traveling 15 meters to the north, he used a map and notes to guide him back to the railroad switch ties at 263 west. He had systematically hidden them all over an area of one square mile, along with a map and notes. Over the following years, Jaeger, the war guide, would occasionally return to his caches, reburying and repacking them, as well as drying them up and digging them out. After burying them in various locations, Jaeger packed them into color slides and left them behind, causing quite a stir among the Americans.

Jaeger finally retrieved the collection of 2,000 slides, which were still in good shape, after storing them in a Swiss bank for all the years since 1965.

LIFE.Com presents a series of color pictures from the top-of-the-over-the celebrations in Berlin, marking Hitler’s 50th birthday in April 1939. The pictures include some gaudy and ludicrously bestowed gifts by Nazi sycophants and German peers, serving as an acknowledgment, albeit grudgingly, of photographer Jaeger’s acknowledgement of the scope of a man we little admire.

The photographs seen today by Jaeger elicit an unsettling sense of dread and dismay at the sheer scale of the nationalist tribal madness that convulsed a “civilized” nation long ago, knowing that such horrors would soon be unleashed.